Creatures of Pandora
"On Pandora the animals are strange, menacing and beautiful all at once.
These six-legged muscular creatures exude a sense of grace and nobleness,
which I wanted to convey. I wanted my designs to be a tribute to nature."
- Patrick Martel.
When he dreamed up AVATAR, James Cameron created a coherent, highly structured
world with its own set of codes and natural laws, including a living, breathing
ecosystem with an exotic fauna. When the creators of TORUK – The First Flight
decided to evoke the creatures of Pandora on stage they could easily have turned
to animatronics – animal figures animated by means of electromechanical devices.
Instead, they chose to create bona fide puppets where the strings, rod or controls
are intentionally left visible and the puppeteers are in full view. Regardless of
the technique, the goal remains to urge the spectator to suspend disbelief for a
moment – to create the illusion that these are not mere objects made of metal and
cloth, but living beings from a faraway moon.
In TORUK – The First Flight, 16 puppets represent the creatures of Pandora: six
Viperwolves, three Direhorses, three Austrapedes, one Turtapede, two swarms of
Woodsprites, and one Toruk. While the Viperwolves and Direhorses are directly
inspired by the movie, the Austrapedes and the Turtapede were created from scratch.
“Not only did we want to please AVATAR fans, we wanted to surprise them too,” says
Patrick. But the responsibility of adding new species to Pandora’s fauna was not
taken lightly. The features of these new six-limbed creatures had to be consistent
with the morphological standards of Pandora. And they are.
Since weight is an important factor when building large-scale
puppets, most structures are made of aluminum or, whenever possible, carbon
fiber, a material as flexible as it is lightweight. The inside of the puppets
is Plastazote, which is ultra-light polyethylene foam. Stretch fabrics such as
Lycra are used for the creatures’ skin, while the wings of Toruk are cut from
polyester silk. The textures and patterns on the outside were printed using a
technique called sublimation, which fixes the images in the fibers of the material.
- Viperwolf – With its low-slung head and snakelike jaw, the Viperwolf
is a swift, fiercely intelligent animal that hunts in packs. The puppeteer uses
his hands to control the upper body and articulated head of the Viperwolf, working
each of the four front legs with his hand. The puppeteer moves the animal’s hind
legs by giving the puppet a specific swinging motion. The Viperwolf puppet has
green luminous eyes, is illuminated from the inside, and glows red and
- Direhorse – The Direhorse is a wild, frisky animal. Two
puppeteers work in unison inside the structure. The first controls the front
part, including neck and head; his legs become the creature’s two front legs.
The second puppeteer controls the middle legs with his hands; his legs become
the animal’s hind legs. The puppeteers stand on platform shoes to better convey
the creature’s impressive size.
- The Austrapede –
With its long, thin neck and tail and its long, narrow bill, the Austrapede is
a relatively small creature by Pandoran standards. The Austrapedes are impulsive,
fidgety creatures whose emotions spread quickly from one individual to the other
by a form of mimicry. A single puppeteer housed inside controls the neck and head
with one hand, using his other hand to work the wings, which start flapping
whenever the Austrapede is frightened. Perched on 7-inch-high platform shoes that
give the animal its distinct hop, the puppeteer can see through the animal’s gills,
which are a common feature of Pandoran fauna.
- The Turtapede – With its large dorsal fin
and tail, the Turtapede is agile in shallow water. The puppeteer moves the
sea-dwelling creature by pushing on the structure. He uses his arms to move the
creature’s legs. The shell of the Turtapede has iridescent patterns that
- The Woodsprites – The two swarms of Woodsprites are actually mobiles
manipulated by puppeteers. Inspired by the work of sculptor Alexander Calder, they
evoke the Woodsprites in all their aerial lightness and elegance. To reproduce
their bioluminescent glow, each of the 20 seeds is equipped with a DEL light.
- The Toruk, or Great Leonopteryx – The fierce and noble Toruk is an oversized
marionette with a 40-foot wingspan. This type of traditional string puppet is
usually much smaller and works upside down: the strings are normally manipulated
from above instead of from below. The show’s Toruk works by reverse gravity and
is suspended from a cable attached to an automation system that controls the
creature’s movements in space. Six puppeteers on the ground control the other
movements of the creature. It takes one puppeteer to control the head, two to
direct the shoulders, two to work the wings, and one to control the tail – all
in a synchronized aerial choreography.
Fourteen additional puppets appear in TORUK – The First Flight to evoke various
animals on Pandora. These more rudimentary and impressionistic puppets,
handcrafted by the Na’vi, are used in various rituals and ceremonies.
Without the puppeteers, the fauna in the show would be inert and lifeless. They
are the ones who breathe life into the creatures, hence the moniker “Spirits